Down But Not Out

White enthusiasm for multicultural, anti-racist education has waned, proponents faith in the movement's ability to endure and grow.

By Priscilla Pardini

Thirty years after making its debut in the nation’s schools, multicultural, anti-racist education is being bombarded by a series of challenges that have weakened its impact and derailed its growth.

The challenges stem in large part from an increasingly conservative political climate coupled with the enduring legacy of white supremacy. They include a serious lack of diversity in the nation’s teaching staff, a drop in funding for multicultural programs, entrenched school policies that promote and perpetuate institutional racism, and a standards and testing movement that is pushing schools to adopt narrow views of learning and knowledge.

The result, say teachers and others working in K-12 classrooms, is a general waning in enthusiasm for and commitment to multicultural programs.

“Eleven years ago, multiculturalism was a top priority,” says Bakari Chavanu, an English teacher at Florin High School in Sacramento, Calif. “Now, with all the emphasis on teaching the basics and meeting the standards, it’s low on people’s priorities.”

Carl Grant, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees. “The fact is, multicultural education is no longer front page news,” Grant says.

Ironically, the decreased interest in and support for anti-racist, multicultural education at the K-12 level comes at a time when the movement has never been stronger in the halls of academia. “At the academic level, multicultural education is alive and well,” says Christine Sleeter, a professor at the Center for Collaborative Education and Professional Studies, California State University – Monterey Bay. “But I think the priorities coming from the states have shifted. As the nation itself has swung in a conservative direction, the political climate in the schools has changed, too, from what it was like when the multicultural movement began.”

According to Sleeter, one has to look no farther than California for evidence of the attacks on multiculturalism. “It feels as if over the last several years, communities of color here are increasingly under assault,” she says, citing the passage of statewide initiatives cutting public services for illegal immigrants (later found to be unconstitutional), eliminating affirmative action, and curtailing bilingual education.

In addition, educational consultants working at the K-12 level have told her that they have seen a “drying up of interest” in staff development programs that focus on anti-racist, multicultural education. Sleeter also cites an increase in what she calls “multicultural fatigue” at the school level among “whites who have gotten tired of talking about the issues . . . who just kind of want to focus on something else.”

At the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Sonia Nieto, professor of Language, Literacy and Culture, increasingly finds herself engaged in conversations with teachers upset by the growing emphasis on standards and test scores. “They are frustrated and feel a sense of powerlessness over the fact that other things are being neglected,” she says.


To be sure, most schools in the U.S. claim to be doing something called multicultural education. “The problem is, what they’re doing may not be that good,” says Priscilla Walton, a researcher at the National Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “For some, multicultural education means revolution in the classroom, and for others, fiestas and parties.”

In its early days, multicultural education was almost exclusively devoted to celebrating and disseminating information about a variety of cultures. But today, multiculturalism embraces a far broader mission: changing the structure of schools to give students of all racial groups equal access to social and academic success. In the now widely accepted words of consultant Enid Lee, true multicultural education goes “beyond heroes and holidays.” Says Lee, “The purpose is to challenge stereotypes and include new information that transforms the way we look at each other and ourselves, and gives us the skills to deal with racism and other forms of oppression.”

Lee prefers the term “anti-racist” education to “multicultural” education because she says the latter so often has been interpreted in a superficial way. Add-on lessons about African-American heroes taught once a year, or a few books in the classroom library written by authors of color, for instance, constitute no more than “frills” that are not well integrated into a school’s mission. She points out that while such an approach to multicultural, anti-racist education obviously short-changes students, it also can undermine a program’s very existence. Says Lee, “The fact is, if something is a frill, it’s easy to cut when something else comes along.”

Lee defines true multicultural, anti-racist education as a “perspective that cuts across all subject areas, influencing the way we teach and what we teach about.” Such an approach calls on a teacher, for example, to look at all the materials used in a classroom with a multicultural eye. It also requires schools to address issues of power and justice by revisiting policies that result, for example, in a disproportionate number of students of color being placed in exceptional education classes or a district’s least experienced teachers being assigned to its most challenging schools.

Other scholars also distinguish between the varying levels of multiculturalism. James A. Banks, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and director of its Center for Multicultural Education, sees multicultural education as a five-step process that begins with integrating content representative of a variety of cultures into the curriculum. But Banks’ vision of the movement also calls for clarifying ways in which knowledge is influenced by culture, incorporating teaching strategies that boost achievement of students from diverse backgrounds, and modifying students’ racial attitudes. The best programs, he says, also “empower school culture” by examining and modifying policies in order to ensure fairness to all.

Sleeter differentiates between what she calls mainstream multiculturalism, which focuses on issues such as building students’ self-esteem and learning about other cultures – issues she says “white people are more comfortable with” – and critical multiculturalism, which attempts to examine institutional racism. “If you’re trying to build a better society, you need to examine not just how people as individuals feel about these issues, but also the very structures society has set up to maintain social stratification,” she says.

Grant of the University of Wisconsin – Madison says the views of Lee, Banks, and Sleeter have helped expand multicultural education theory. “You now have scholars in this field trying to understand how schooling in this country has been constructed, and in some cases, arguing that it needs to be reconstructed within the context of a multicultural education frame,” Grant says.

But Grant says most multicultural education programs at the K-12 level, even if they attempt to address such issues, remain narrow in their vision, focusing on one specific concern, in isolation. “Most folks talk about language, or what girls are doing in math, or if African Americans are being kept out of advanced classes,” he says. “But putting policies in place that pull all of those pieces together in a holistic way isn’t happening.”

Banks, Lee, Sleeter and Nieto agree that their ultimate vision of multicultural, anti-racist education as an agent of change is not evident in most of the nation’s classrooms. Banks says that although the movement has had a major influence on the nation’s schools, most programs are not operating at a deep level. “They focus on heroes, holidays, Black day, Jewish day, ethnic foods,” he says. “We’re still eating our way to salvation.”

Sleeter says most multicultural programs at the K-12 level were framed around issues of cultural difference rather than social justice and inequality. “That’s because multiculturalism is filtered through the eyes and life experiences of teachers, who are mostly middle class, white people,” she says. “Their level of awareness of racism and how it works is not very high.”

Even Lee, who describes herself as “not entirely pessimistic” about the state of the movement, concedes that substantive programs are still the exception and constitute what she calls “pockets of promise” around the country.


Establishing and maintaining even minimal elements of a multicultural curriculum has never been easy. Critics have long assailed the movement, which at its very heart challenges the status quo of America’s white majority, as a divisive attempt to denigrate white European culture with coursework they say lacks academic rigor and historical accuracy.

Nieto takes strong issue with such arguments. “I don’t know who determined that high quality and rigorous education can only be delivered through a curriculum that espouses one perspective,” she says. “It seems so logical, to me, that a high-quality, critical curriculum that really teaches children to think inherently, has to include many perspectives, and has to ask the big, important questions that might lead to conflicting points of view.”

Still, the attacks continue. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who in 1998 helped push forward California Proposition 227 mandating English-only instruction, for example, has broadened his horizon. Unz’s new target: the broader “multicultural agenda.” He is quoted, for instance, in an August editorial in the Orange County Register in California, as saying that developments in California “will destroy the credibility of a lot of these activists who support the full multicultural agenda.”

According to Michael W. Apple, John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, such efforts are being fueled by coalitions of well-organized, well-financed conservative thinkers. “They are not fools, don’t see themselves as racist, and really want to improve education,” Apple says. “But they are having quite a dangerous impact.”

By way of example, Apple notes that the same foundations that have been deeply involved in promoting and sponsoring school vouchers also underwrote publication of The Bell Curve, the 1994 book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein that claimed measurable genetic differences in intelligence levels between races. “You begin to see certain themes – students’ right to exit public schools, public schools out of control, teachers unions with too much power, and support for standards and ‘real’knowledge, which they say is in jeopardy because public schools have become too multicultural.”

Lee is not surprised that, given such a backdrop, multicultural education continues to struggle. “Any educational movement that challenges the status quo will come across hard times now and then and find itself in an uneasy relationship with the dominant culture,” she says. “And when you consider that we are living in quite conservative times, it’s not surprising that multicultural education, in its transformative sense, is undergoing such a hard time.”


But these days, it is the educational establishment’s love affair with standards and high-stakes testing that is having the single greatest effect on multicultural programs.

Howard Berlak, a teacher, scholar, and activist living in Oakland,Calif., is especially critical. He has described the linking of curriculum to standards – and ultimately to high-stakes testing – as nothing less than “a powerful and pervasive way to ensure the continued hegemony of the dominant culture.”

Evelyn Kalibala, director of multicultural education for the New York City Board of Education and a regional director for the National Association of Multicultural Education, is someone working at the K-12 level who believes that anti-racist, multicultural programs are in jeopardy as a direct result of the standards and testing movement. Her assessment is particularly troubling, given New York City’s nearly 15-year commitment to a multicultural, anti-racist program that ultimately aims to make systemic changes in the 1.1 million-student system.

“I can’t say we’ve totally infused multiculturalism throughout the curriculum, but we’re making progress,” Kalibala says. She points to the leadership role of the school system’s multicultural district coordinators, who act as liaisons with outside agencies such as the Anti-Defamation League to coordinate professional development programs for teachers, as particularly effective.

Yet, despite the progress she sees, Kalibala believes the multicultural movement “seems to be sidetracked – falling by the wayside.” The current focus, in the New York City schools, she says, is clearly on meeting state and local standards that are linked to standardized tests. And since the standards focus on basic skills, teachers who might otherwise be teaching lessons on decision-making – a form of empowerment – are being pressured to concentrate instead on a limited number of strategies geared to passing tests.

Teachers all across the country share Kalibala’s frustration.”Teachers here are so overwhelmed with the amount of testing and assessments we have to do, that multicultural education has taken a back seat,” says Jehanne Beaton, a teacher of humanities and English at Folwell Middle School in Minneapolis, MN. What’s more, Beaton says teachers are being observed to make sure they are teaching to the standards, and have been told, “If our kids didn’t pass (the tests), we might not keep our jobs.”

Dave Zabor, a teacher at Kyrene de la Paloma Elementary School in Chandler, Arizona, says most of the staff development in his district centers on raising test scores. “What we need is information on multicultural education and lots of other areas that have to do with student growth,” he says. “But it seems nothing gets addressed unless it’s tied to the tests. It’s deplorable, short-sighted and not good for children.”

Banks sees one positive aspect to the standards and testing movement as it pertains to multicultural, anti-racist education. “It assumes all students can learn,” he says. “And African American students are being expected to achieve at the same high level as everyone else.”

Kalibala agrees that is a worthy goal. “There should be standards,” she says. “We should have all children achieving at grade level or above. But it’s how we accomplish what we accomplish that’s important. Somehow we who believe in social justice have to make sure that the curriculum and programs and strategies, used to increase student achievement and ensure that students are meeting the standards, are reflective of many perspectives.”

Lee believes skillful teachers committed to integrating multicultural concepts into the curriculum can do so despite the demands of standards and high-stakes testing. Even where multicultural, anti-racist education is being eclipsed by standards and testing, she say sshe sees teachers “reshaping what they’re mandated into doing into something meaningful.”

“It’s a matter of inserting those concepts into test preparation, and you can use almost any content to do that,” says Lee, a co-editor of Beyond Heroes and Holidays, A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development.

By way of example, Lee cites a lesson she observed in which students demonstrated their mastery of capitalization and punctuation rules by writing poems about their cultural backgrounds. “They then read their poems to each other, which brought in the use of pitch and intonation, and edited their work based on the responses of the listener,” Lee says. “All those skills the teacher took from the test, but she worked them around significant content in terms of the children’s racial, cultural and linguistic identity. There was a lot of cultural presence in the classroom that day.”


Grant says that despite the unrelenting criticism of multicultural education and a decrease in its visibility, the movement is alive and well at the academic, scholarly levels. In fact, he contends that the movement no longer generates the kind of attention it once did, mainly because, “It has become widely accepted as a legitimate educational field.”

He is encouraged, for example, by the emergence of a second generation of multicultural scholars, including Sleeter and Nieto, whose work is in great demand at major universities, where he says courses in multicultural education have become a staple of teacher education programs. That’s due in part to an accreditation process by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education that requires colleges and universities seeking NCATE accreditation to provide evidence of a multicultural component. Specifically, that means taking steps to recruit a racially diverse student body and faculty, develop a multicultural curriculum, and provide aspiring teachers with field experiences in diverse settings.

Beverly Cross, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, notes that there are now several universities offering a PhD in multicultural education. The field’s scholarly legitimacy is also evident, she notes, in the 1995 publication of the Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education.

Donna M. Gollnick, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based NCATE, says deans of schools of education once saw little reason to integrate diversity into their teacher education programs. “But there is no longer any question that this is important, or any argument that this needs to be done,” Gollnick says. “Today, most of those with whom I work see the demographics in the country, and at least articulate the fact that they need to prepare their students to work with students who may be different from themselves.”

Grant points, too, to the proliferation of national conferences on multicultural education and the establishment and growth of the National Association of Multicultural Education as indicators that the movement has come of age. Jill Greenberg, executive director of NAME, says the group was founded in 1990 to “move multicultural education in from the margins.” Up until then, according to Greenberg, there had been no one group “focusing on these issues as its primary concern.” NAME acts as a clearinghouse for information, materials and activism around the issue. The group publishes a newsletter and journal, Multicultural Perspectives, and runs national and regional conferences. Three years ago, NAME began forming state chapters; today there are chapters in place or in the planning stages in roughly 25 states. “That’s a good sign of the health and interest in multicultural education,” Greenberg says.

Grant and others say that ultimately it is the scholarly research around multicultural education that will continue to fuel the movement’s progress. Lee says that research has proven that multicultural, anti-racist education is not just a frill, but rather, good education. Scholars take heart from the fact that the results of such research is in greater demand than ever. Banks noted that in 1973, few publishers were interested in his book, Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies. “They said, ‘Oh, that won’t sell. There’s no market for it, no courses.'” The text is now in its sixth edition, and according to Banks, “Publishers are knocking on my door, and every other expert’s door, asking us to write on this issue.”


Banks also points to changing demographics nationwide as an engine that will drive the development of multicultural, anti-racist education in the near future. Given the fact that 48 percent of the nation’s school-age population is projected to be non-white by 2020 (compared with 35 percent in 1985), Banks says the need for multicultural programs is destined to grow. “The reality is, teachers are much more likely to teach multiculturally if the group in front of them is diverse,” he says.

On a related issue, Nieto predicts that as more teachers of color enter the nation’s classrooms, multicultural education will become more substantive. “As the nature of the decision-makers changes, so do the decisions,” she says.

Grant believes it is significant that multicultural education has endured and evolved over the last 30 years without the massive infusions of funding, particularly federal funding, that have supported other educational concepts. “This has come out of the passion and the wisdom of the people in the area who believe it is needed,” he says. That passion, he says, is likely to help the movement in the future.

There are signs that the multicultural movement may be on the verge of a comeback. Nieto is encouraged by an increasing awareness among teachers and principals that most of what passes for multicultural education is, indeed, too superficial. “I hear more and more people talking about the fact that celebrating Heritage Week and holding diversity dinners is not enough,” Nieto says. “And while realization alone doesn’t guarantee that multicultural education will improve in depth, it’s encouraging.”

Lee is convinced that changing demographics, racial tension, and the gap in achievement levels between whites and students of color all underscore the need for multicultural, anti-racist education. “People will respond by reshaping what they’re mandated into doing into something meaningful,” she predicts.

In some places, that is already happening. Deborah Menkart is director of the Network of Educators on the Americas, an activist educational organization that works with teachers and parents in the Washington, D.C. Public Schools and nationally. She says materials that help teachers design multicultural, anti-racist lessons are in great demand, and that the distribution of such materials through the network is on the increase.

Menkart says 15,000 copies of Beyond Heroes and Holidays, published by the network in 1998, have been adopted for use in about 250 college courses and a growing number of school districts. “People are certainly looking for something that takes what theorists have been talking about and using it on the practical level,”she says.

Banks, meanwhile, urges teachers struggling to broaden multicultural, anti-racist programs at the school level to stay the course, and not become distracted or discouraged by critics. “We’re in this for the long haul and have to keep our eye on the prize,” he says. He recommends that teachers keep abreast of the newest research in the field. “Reading is a form of action,” he says.

Banks takes heart from individual teachers who are using multicultural, anti-racist practices in their classrooms every day. “They are implementing it in thoughtful ways and in ways consistent with theory and practice,” he says. “These are teachers who for personal reasons, spiritual reasons, have a personal commitment to this movement, which I see as another way of taking a civil rights stance.”

Sleeter advises teachers to look more deeply at the multicultural lessons they are teaching, and try, for example, to link celebrations of holidays to issues of social justice. She also urges teachers to spend time in their communities listening to what people are talking about. “You’ll be empowering voices that have been historically excluded, and that’s an important piece of multicultural education,” she says.

Priscilla Pardini is a Milwaukee-based journalist who has writtenextensively about education.